SAL celebrates IWD – 09.03.22

SAL celebrated International Women’s Day (IWD) as our first in-person event held since the pandemic.  It was great to come together and see people face to face.   

IWD is a chance for ALL our members (not just the female members) to pause, reflect and celebrate the achievements of outstanding women in the legal profession. 

On the panel, we had Sultana Tafadar of No.5 Chambers (only one of two hijab-wearing criminal law barristers) who takes silk later this year and Maria Karaiskos a barrister with over 2 decades in practise who also sits as a judge.  Maria is at Church Court Chambers which generously hosted the evening for SAL.  Maria prosecutes and defends.  She qualified as a Deputy District Judge in 2017 and then a year later as a Recorder for the Crown Court.  Both are inspiring females who have broken the mould in reaching the top of their profession.  They deal with high profile cases from murders to serious and organised crimes.  In the last 5 years, Sultana has cultivated a niche in handling terrorism matters. 

Maria (who is Greek-Cypriot by heritage) praised SAL’s inclusiveness in inviting her to speak at this signature event.

SAL strives for a legal profession that is free of bias, discrimination and stereotypes; one that values and celebrates our differences.  There is an abundance of evidence to indicate that workforces are stronger, happier, more dynamic and creative when people with new voices, different ideas and opinions, new ways of working or solving problems come together and are consulted and made to feel included in the discussion.  Everyone has their part to play.

Building on this Maria spoke about “strength in diversity” and treating all people with respect, regardless of whether they are colleagues, other legal professionals or defendants.  By way of example, she cited the success of the jury trial system which she attributed to strength in diversity – 12 people from all walks of life who are trusted to make the right decision on their assessment of the evidence.

We learnt different mechanisms to handle discrimination and bias within the profession.   The theme for IWD this year is #BreakTheBias.  Education, calling out discrimination and female allies are tools we can all use. 

The onus is on all of us to address “intersectional discrimination.”   Ethnic minority women have to fight simultaneously on multiple grounds: against gender and race discrimination and sometimes against visible religious prejudice.  Sultana gave us some funny one-liners to diffuse the pain of prejudicial, sensitive and distressing remarks.  Jokes aside, Sultana’s firm view was do not be afraid of speaking up at the material time and with seniority comes responsibility to help pave a better path for junior practitioners.

A diverse audience, including students and legal practitioners made for a lively Q&A session. 

So-called mentors had given unhelpful advice to young practitioners including “change your surname if you wanted to succeed.”  Some instructing solicitors are equally guilty of discrimination making comments like “a Muslim representing a Muslim defendant may not present well in front of a jury” or telling the senior clerk “let’s get the young, petite female barrister to represent a convicted paedophile.”  Lay clients can be just as prejudiced asking silly questions from their solicitor in front of an ethnic minority counsel like “does she speak English?”  Barristers robing rooms sounded like sports club locker rooms where the banter included comments like “well she only made it to the bench because she ticks two diversity boxes, female and pretty” regardless of the fact that the first stages of judicial competition process are anonymous and often done by way of examination with just an identification number for each candidate.

The number of female barristers leaving the profession after say 10 years in practice is high.  Maria spoke about the maternity-leave scandal that continues to be in operation at some sets of chambers with barristers having to pay tenancy fees after just 2 months of maternity leave, despite not being ready to return to work.  Women should not have to start thinking when to have children so that their career is least affected, it is unlikely that men think in this way. 

SAL President, Ranjit Sond, explained that for solicitors the issues are sometimes less challenging than for barristers.  Solicitors Firms unlike Barristers Chambers are obliged by employment laws to protect jobs for those going on maternity leave.  Now, of course, some law firms and public sector institutions have moved even further forward introducing flexible working patterns.  The bar has some catching up to do.

Retention rates have improved according to the Bar Standards Board although there remains a consistent trend of female barristers leaving Chambers after the early stages of their career.  Young mothers experience problems of trying to recultivate a legal practice at the level they enjoyed prior to pregnancy when they attempt to return to full-time work at the Bar.  Sultana talked about using time away from work such as maternity leave to become more commercially viable, building up a network of solicitors by visiting them, even with her new-born baby and re-establishing relationships.  Maria suggested speaking to Chambers about maternity policies so that improvements are made.

From the audience, we heard from a retired member of the Paris Bar, who reminded us that the hijab is banned in France and simply would not be allowed in public office.  Freedom of thought, conscience and religion is enshrined in EU Law and for Sultana there are religious reasons she chooses to wear the hijab. 

Sporting a white hijab that evening having come from the Old Bailey, Sultana said when she first thought about what to do, she consulted her pupil master in Chambers.  Together they looked at the relevant Practice Direction on religious headdress in court and followed the guidelines which were first established with Sikh male barristers in mind who could choose to wear a white turban instead of a wig.  Fortunately, the law has addressed some key issues like this otherwise Sultana joked: “Muslim female barristers might be left wondering do I wear a wig on top of my hijab and another hijab to cover that wig?” 

There is more to be done to increase diversity, equality and inclusion in the legal profession but holding key events such as IWD to celebrate female success, and giving members the chance to share their experiences and ways of tackling discrimination is really important.

SAL is truly delighted to have hosted two brilliant female speakers.  They tackled the sensitive and often challenging issues of gender and other forms of discrimination in the legal profession with grace and good humour and a real sense of pride and passion about retaining their personal attributes and identities.  To quote, Oscar Wilde “Be Yourself; Everyone Else Is Already Taken.”

Chamali Fernando,

SAL Committee Member, Civil and Commercial Litigation Barrister.

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